Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month - What Theater Can Teach You About Film: An Interview with Professor Jerry AbbittOne of the most interesting common denominators I discovered in the course of interviewing experts for my upcoming book, "ScreenTEENwriters," was how many of them actually began their careers as drama students. Is there just something magical about the performing arts that helps pave the way to Hollywood? Professor Jerry Abbitt, Chair of the Department of Theater at California State University, Northridge, has taught his share of theatrical courses from Freshman to Graduate level for over 20 years. He has also spent many years overseeing the production program - ensuring that CSUN's mainstage plays get the production support they need from faculty and students. His insights on the educational value of "treading the boards" are shared in this month's column.
Q: Why don't we start out with some background on who you are and what you've accomplished as Department Chair.
A: I grew up in Kentucky, where I was the first person in my family to finish college. I actually started out in Art and then switched to Theater as an undergraduate. I have worked in theater from coffee houses to carnivals, from Shakespeare to saloon shows. In the summer of 1971 I was the youngest theme park General Manager in America. I received my MA and MFA in Scenography at Purdue, studying with professors whose training had a direct line of descent from my own personal hero, Robert Edmond Jones - a design visionary in the early to mid 20th century. As Chair, I have presided over five very exciting years - we have expanded our community links (we're known as one of the best sources for Latino theater, for example), have undertaken a second exchange to China, strengthened our graduate program and had undergraduates granted fellowships in graduate programs in Harvard and Yale.
Q: What sort of theater curriculum can be found at the Northridge campus?
A: At CSUN, we offer undergraduates a liberal arts program. We're not a tightly focused, pre-professional program and this is by choice. This means that our aim is not to create actors, designers, directors or playwrights, but to provide a comprehensive education, through theater, for a full range of students. In this sense, we follow Stanislavsky's advice, who once said that the best training for the theater practitioner is life. We support our program with an extensive main-stage theater season as an integral part of the curriculum. There is also a student-run experimental Theater Guild season.
Q: It sounds as if you not only pack audiences into the shows but plenty of students into the classroom!
A: At the moment, we have approximately 200 theater majors, and a small covey (15-20) of graduate students. We also serve the entire undergraduate community at CSUN with General Education courses, such as Acting for Non-Majors, World Drama and Creative Dramatics. We normally offer about 12 sections of Acting for Non-Majors each semester: at 30 students per class, this represents a sizable number of students!
Q: Just as a rough estimate, how many of your students who major in theater arts actually go on to have a job in the performing arts or film?
A: Well, it's interesting to note that, despite the humanities-based nature of our program, I would say over half of our undergraduates go on to graduate programs in theater or find jobs within the profession. By "within the profession" I include the film and television industry. A large number of our graduates work their way into these fields as well as live theater. Q: What can the live theater experience teach you about writing for today's film industry?
A: How to tell a story! After all, that's the essence of both theater and film. Both tell a story which helps people understand their place in the universe. In theater, we find this in a through-line of activity with the audience being an active participant. In film, the through-line only becomes fully realized through the editing process. Aristotle listed this ordering of events (I believe his word for it was praxis) as the most important of his six elements.
Q: Although live theater has existed far longer than the medium of film, its evolution in terms of production techniques hasn't been nearly as great.
A: It may seem that way but that's because many people don't realize that the illusionary aspect of theater keeps going in and out of favor. In the 16th century, for instance, the technology and production techniques for the court masques were pretty advanced for the time. The same can be said for ancient Rome. Some of the technology utilized in staging the theatrical events in the Coliseum were very much "state of the art!" We are now at a period where the illusionary aspect is playing second fiddle to the metaphorical, but the pendulum will swing back at some point.
Q: So what do you think accounts for the longevity of live performances over electronic ones?
A: The reason for the continued life of live theater is very simple. It's the same reason that in spite of the high quality of CD recordings there is something special about a live concert. The live performance, be it music or theater, is a dynamic form of the art. It is every moment alive and every moment being born. The audience members are not there to just observe; they are constantly providing the performers with feedback and this guides the performers in the creation of the performance. A "frozen recording" (film or CD) doesn't have this feedback loop of "performer to audience to performer" and therein lies the essential difference. The audience is observer, not active participant.
Q: Let's say that a student asked you whether they'd be better off writing for the stage or writing for the screen, what would your answer be?
A: I'm not sure what "better off" means. There's probably more total money paid to screenwriters, but it really depends on what provides the most satisfaction on an individual basis.
Q: I think it would also depend on what you see as the future of the American stage. Is it really dead or just undergoing an undefined rebirth?
A: It is, and has always been, in the process of being reborn. In a sense, theater is a reaction to ___________ (Each artist must fill in their own blank). As long as we have human beings being conceived, born, and/or dying, someone will fill in the blank and theater will be created.
Q: Last but not least, students often cite the space and "special effects" limitations of a physical stage as a good reason not to write for the theater. What would be your counter-argument to that?
A: The "limitations" of a physical stage - the fact that it involves a sharing of time and space - are actually theater's greatest assets! Everyone in theater, whether acting, writing, providing tech support, directing or watching, takes part in a LIVE dynamic process. It's active. It's involved. At its best, it's kinetic, participatory...a community experience. Performers, designers, crew, audience - these are LIVE bodies and minds connecting. The laughter, the tears, the sweat, the "aha!" moment shared in the dark - this is what theater is all about. What writers wouldn't want to be part of this?!
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Excerpted from Christina's latest book, ScreenTEENwriters," slated for Spring 2002 release by Meriwether Publishing, Colorado.